What we talk about when we talk about ‘voice’

When we talked about focus and structure last Thursday, I talked about how a compelling voice can act on the reader like a spirit guide to the story (although I am sure I didn’t use exactly those words). I talked about how — when the writer’s voice is compelling enough and has sufficient authority, or humor or uniqueness — the reader will follow along without a lot of extra help.

In the beginning, when we’re learning our craft, it’s hard to bring forth our voice. It’s drowned out by the sound of facts, quotes — the conventions of news writing. I like how Jack Hart, in his book, “A Writer’s Coach,” uses the analogy of singing in a choir. For a while, that’s what we do as we learn. And then the soloist steps out.

He defines voice this way:

Ultimately, voice is the writer’s personal style coming through in the writing. It’s as complex and varied as human personality itself.

How is that personality conveyed? What is voice made up of in a particular piece of writing?

It comes from the following (also from Jack Hart’s book, “A Writer’s Coach.”)

  • Atmosphere: The “imaginary environment” created by the writer’s use of description.
  • Level of diction: The formality of the writing (and it shouldn’t be the same for every subject).
  • Tone: “The overall ‘feel’ that emerges from a written passage.” Voice is a constant; tone can change, depending on the subject and objective of the story. Hart talks about how you might use rough, crude language to describe a bar fight. You would use a totally different tone for a story about an exhibit of fine art, or a conversation with President Tim Wolfe.

Certain lazy writing habits work against voice. They include pomposity, using “bureaucratese” or “copspeak,” passive voice (start with the subject!) and using cliches. When we’re doing a notebook dump instead of telling a story in our voice, we’re also likely to repeat ourselves. Repetition is boring, and boring works against voice, as Greg Bowers pointed out in Tuesday’s lecture.

Say what you mean, in your own voice. That entails cutting out the words you would never say in conversation (do you say “prior to” or “before”?) — with the notable exception of those words that we have to use to explain technical or scientific matters. And then, it’s up to us to define terms in a way that helps readers understand the subject and stay with us.

Now, read Susan Orlean’s non-fiction piece, “The American Male at Age Ten,” and analyze it for atmosphere, level of diction and tone. Mark it up and cite examples of all three elements.

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